The Incredible Shrinking Portia

In Portia de Rossi's extraordinary new memoir, she discusses the heartbreaking disease that almost killed her and the love that finally saved her.

portia de rossi
(Image credit: Nino Munoz)

"I Survived Season Two of Ally McBeal!"

That was the slogan on a T-shirt that was given out to the cast and crew by a cast member. I survived season two—but barely. Since beginning the show, I had felt a constant indescribable pressure, a lurking threat of being fired, even though there was no evidence to suggest that I was displeasing the executive producer. While it was a good place to work and people were generally respectful, there was an eerie stillness and a certain kind of silence to the set that felt like a breezeless summer day, and while there were no insects, there were no birds chirping, either. During the last four weeks of the season, every night after wrap, I would get into my car, smile and wave good night to hair and makeup, and, like clockwork, I would burst into tears once I made the right turn from Manhattan Beach Studios onto Rosecrans Boulevard. And I would sob, not just cry. I made loud wailing noises that sounded more like "ahhhhhh" than the kind of crying I'd done over other things. In fact, I sounded like Lucille Ball as Lucy Ricardo when she would cry loudly, embarrassing Ricky to the point where he'd do anything she wanted just to shut her up. No one could hear my wailing, however. I wasn't doing it for effect. I was doing it to soothe myself, to comfort myself. And I didn't know why I was crying, either. I would cry just as loudly if I'd spent the day performing a wordy two-page closing argument to a jury as if I'd been propped up on a chair in the background of the law office with no dialogue at all.

With the end of the season came the holidays. I had booked a trip to St. Barths with my friend Sacha, with whom I'd been secretly in love for years. But instead of consummating our love, we spent the trip talking about her fiancé in Australia.

So I swallowed my disillusionment in the form of cream sauces, piña coladas, and pastries, served up to me by the private chef I'd hired to help me seduce Sacha into a life of lesbianism. Now the chef's role was to reward me for my hard work on Ally for the season. I ate my way into relaxation in St. Barths. And I got really fat.

The fact that I got fat was unfortunate, as I was scheduled to shoot the cover of Rolling Stone Australia two weeks after my vacation ended. I went back home to Melbourne to my mother, feeling more like a deserter than the war hero I had dreamed of. I thought I'd be paraded around Camberwell, the town where my mother lived, as the American TV star triumphantly returning. To be honest, there was still some parading, some walking up to the Camberwell shops with my mother to talk to the shopkeepers about my adventures overseas, but it felt wrong. The pounds were evidence of the pressure. Heaviness overshadowed the levity of talking about what I wore to the Emmys or what Calista [Flockhart] was like as a person. People could sense my depression and discomfort, and that really ruined the fun for everyone. So my mother dutifully hid her chocolate-covered cookies, and I starved and cried and went back and forth to the gym I used to go to for aerobics classes back in the '80s.

Rolling Stone Australia. Issue 566, October 1999

There are two rumours about Portia de Rossi ... So which rumour would she like to address first?

"Oooh, I love this," the 26-year-old says in her peculiar L.A. via Melbourne accent. "It's just like truth or dare!"

OK, the first rumour is about the hair. We know it's real. We know she's a natural blonde because her mum has shown us the baby photos. Even as a 4-year-old her white-blonde hair was worn long and girly. So that's that out of the way ... The second rumour is that De Rossi was spotted in clubs around Melbourne recently cosying up to other girls. So does that mean she's bisexual? A lesbian? A long, delighted squeal comes down the telephone line. "Ooooh, how fun! I love that question!" she says, shouting now ...

"Let's just say every celebrity gets that rumour and now I feel like I've joined the club. Hooray!"

Hooray indeed. Not only were they "on to me," a phrase that my mother would use when my secrets were being pried out of their vault and into pop culture, but the photo shoot exposed another terrible secret, possibly worse than being gay. It told the world, or at least the people of Australia, that I was fat. I tried as hard as I could to get the weight off, but whittling down from 140 pounds in two weeks proved to be too much of a feat even for this crash dieter. If only Sacha had fallen in love with me, none of this would've happened. Now I was on the cover of a magazine, fat and looking like a hooker in a chain-mail boob tube and leather hot pants. Over the previous six months, I was told that I had ranked highly in the polls featured in men's magazines as being "hot," mainly because of the icy, untouchable nature of my character. Nothing was more of a foil for my real, gay self than to appear on the cover of men's magazines as a sexy, man-eating young actress. Another difficult role to play, I was discovering who I was while desperately trying to convey the image of the woman I wasn't.

When Portia de Rossi looked at the clothes we'd chosen for this month's cover shoot—leather hot pants, chain-mail boob tube, handcuffs, G-string—she only had one thing to say: "Oh, fuck!" Several cigarettes later and a few soothing words from her mum and her aunt Gwen (also at the shoot), she was happily admiring herself in the sexy clobber. "Mama, do you think it's too kinky?" she asked. "No," her mum replied. "You look very pretty."

After the photo shoot, I went to the airport. I had to fly back to Los Angeles to meet with executives from L'Oréal to discuss being their new spokesperson for a hair product. I knew that people thought I had nice hair. I knew it was special because I was often told that it was the reason for my success. The fact that I played the title role in the Geelong Grammar School production of Alice in Wonderland, for example, was because of my hair, according to all the girls at school. Occasionally, on modeling jobs, I was singled out to be featured in a campaign because of my hair, and on Ally McBeal toward the end of my first season, my hair acted out more drama than my character did. It went to court to showcase how women use sexuality to get ahead in the workplace, it indicated when my character's walls were up, and it even performed a few stunts, notably when the John Cage character "wired" my hair to remotely shake loose from its restrictive bun when he wanted me to "let my hair down." So the fact that my hair had garnered some attention from people who sell hair products wasn't surprising to me. In fact, it was the only thing that had made sense for quite a while. The fact that I didn't like my thick, unmanageable hair was irrelevant.

In the airport terminal, I ate. I ate English muffins with butter and jam. I ate potato chips and cookies and gulped down Coke. I threw up. I left the first-class lounge to shop for food in the terminal. I ate McDonald's burgers, vanilla milk shakes, and fries. I threw up again. Then I got on the plane.

"Can I get you a drink, Ms. de Rossi?" The American stewardess had a lipsticky mouth and overpronounced the syllables, as Americans tended to do.

"Baileys Irish Cream, if you have it." Of course I knew they had it; it just sounded more polite, more whimsical. I was aware that the stewardess would think that an after-dinner cream liqueur would be a ridiculous drink to order before dinner, and I needed her to know that I knew it was ridiculous, too, so I said: "I've been looking forward to some Baileys. I always have it on planes." That made it better. When I refused dinner and asked for my sixth Baileys, the stewardess got weird again. Of course she served it to me; I was a first-class passenger after all, but I could detect concern in her pour, more than just the concern that comes with pouring liquid into a narrow-rimmed glass on a moving vehicle that is subject to bouts of turbulence. She was judging me. She looked disgusted. She was worried for me. She had reason to be worried, I guess. I had spent a lot of the plane ride quietly crying as I often do because I hate hovering between one place and another. "Neither here nor there" was an expression my grandmother would use to describe confusion and displacement, and it is a disturbing place to be. This state of hovering during the 14-hour journey was once filled with fantasy scenarios of being Sacha's obsession or having a beautiful body on the cover of a major magazine. Now I had no choice but to fill the time by bringing a glass of thick, creamy liquid back and forth to my lips. I was neither in L.A. nor in Melbourne, neither straight nor gay, neither famous nor unknown, neither fat nor thin, neither a success nor a failure. My Discman played the soundtrack for my inner dialogue—rare recordings of Nirvana. And so here we were, Kurt Cobain and I, displaced, misunderstood, unloved, and "neither here nor there"—he being neither dead nor alive, both in his life and in his death. It occurred to me as I listened to lyrics like "and if you killed yourself, it would make you happy" that if I were at the end of my life, I wouldn't have to keep running the race. If I were really old and close to dying, I wouldn't have to do another season, another magazine cover. I could be remembered as a successful working actor, a celebrity, even. I had been given the challenge of life and beaten it. The pressure I had put on myself to excel in everything I did made life look like a never-ending steeplechase. The thought that I had 50 more years of striving and jumping over hurdles and being the one to beat in the race was enough to make me order another drink.

After my seventh Baileys, I threw up. I made myself throw up, but it took a long time to do it, and because I was drunk, it was sloppy. I've never liked airplane toilets. They've always disgusted me, so the unclean, smelly toilet made me nauseous, and the nausea made me think there was more food and liquid in my gut to get rid of. A lot of dry heaving and coughing followed. My fingernails had cut the back of my throat where my gag reflex was and I was throwing up saliva, maybe bile, and a trace of blood. Several times, I heard knocking on the door. I ignored it. It didn't bother me at all, actually. I deserved to be on this plane and in this bathroom just like they did. By the time I had unlocked the door, there was a guy in a uniform waiting for me. He looked officious and slightly angry, which made me angry. There are other toilets on the plane, for God's sake.

"There's some concern that you're not feeling well. Is there anything I can do to help you, Ms. de Rossi?"

"No. I'm fine." The purging session had given me a colossal headache. So I added, "Maybe some aspirin."

As I walked down the aisle, I noticed a contraption in the way. It was in the aisle blocking access to my seat. It was silver and looked like a cylinder on poles with wheels attached. The stewardess stood next to it, and as if reading my mind she replied, "Oxygen. I think it'll make you feel better."

Something shifted. As I looked into the face of the stewardess, I no longer saw expressions of judgment and disgust. I saw concern. The once-angry, officious-looking man in the uniform returned from getting aspirin for my headache and gave it to me with a smile. I looked at my two uniformed nurses, and their caring, nurturing expressions, and quietly sat in my seat and attached the oxygen mask to my face.

When I woke up to the plane preparing for landing in Los Angeles, the silver contraption, and my headache, were gone. I was in Los Angeles. My name is Portia de Rossi. I'm an American actress about to embark on my second season of a hit TV show. I am here and not there. I am here.

Unbearable Lightness: A Story of Loss and Gain by Portia de Rossi. Copyright (c) 2010 by Portia de Rossi. Reprinted by permission of Atria Books, a division of Simon & Schuster, Inc., NY.